Newark students will soon face a new hurdle when trying to snag seats at the city’s most popular high schools.
Next month, any student who wants into one of the city’s six magnet schools will have to take a new exam that gauges their academic prowess as well as their interest in each school’s theme.
“If you would like to go to any of those schools,” Superintendent Roger León told parents at a conference Wednesday, “you better get ready for the test to get in.”
The exam, which will be given to students on Jan. 11-12, has not yet been announced on the district’s enrollment site. In fact, the test itself is still being developed and logistical details, such as where students will take it, are still being determined, officials said.
In addition to the new test, each school will also begin interviewing applicants, León said — something only two magnet schools did last year, according to an admissions guide. It’s unclear whether the interviews will take place this admission cycle. If so, schools may have to schedule dozens or even hundreds of interviews in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, enrollment for next school year began on Dec. 3 and continues through February — giving students and schools little time to prepare for the new requirements.
“I know as much as you know right now,” one principal said. “Obviously the superintendent is revamping some items, but he hasn’t really shared the details with everyone.”
The district-run magnet schools, which have themes such as science and American history, include some of the city’s most sought-after high schools. Last year, nearly 1,800 eighth-graders listed a magnet school first on their high-school applications even though the schools had space for only 971 students.
The magnets, which vastly outperform the district’s six traditional high schools, already screen applicants. They look at grades, state test scores, attendance records, and — in the case of Arts High School — an audition or visual-art portfolio, when deciding which students to let in.
But even with those screens, some admitted students are not prepared for the rigor of work at the magnets or lack a strong interest in their programs, León said.
“The idea is to make sure that students who choose to go to these schools are going to meet whatever are the demands of that school,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s not that your parents have the right to choose for you to go.”
Even as he moves to make magnet schools more selective, León — who became superintendent in July — also hopes to make traditional schools more appealing to top students.
On Wednesday, he also announced plans to create gifted-and-talented programs at each of the traditional high schools. To qualify, students will also take the new magnet-school exam.
León did not go into detail about what the programs will entail. But he may be drawing from his previous experience as principal of University High School, a magnet school that advertises a gifted-and-talented program on its website. Students must test into the program, which includes a “rigorous curriculum” in English, math, and another language, according to the site.
“Students are going into magnets because they think that’s where they can get their high-performing education,” he said. “Now they’ll be given a reason to not do that.”
The traditional schools will also develop specialized “academies” to train students for various careers, including engineering, teaching, and health services. Each school will partner with a higher-education institution and a professional organization to develop those programs.
Many Newark schools have tried to offer vocational programs, but often struggle to find qualified teachers and meet the stringent requirements to receive federal funding. It’s unclear how the district will help them overcome those challenges, especially if the timeline is also aggressive.
Traditional schools, for their part, seem eager for any support they can get. Angela Mincy, principal of Barringer High School, said the school created an honors program last year in an effort to retain high-achieving students.
“If I don’t create an isolated experience for them, I will lose them,” she said in an interview last month, adding that the goal is to keep attracting more and more top students. “The hope is that one day, one honors track will become two will become three.”
With their selective admissions and college-oriented courses, the city’s magnet schools have long been seen as a refuge for high-achieving students who cannot afford private school. County-run vocational schools, which also screen applicants, are another popular option along with some charter high schools — though they often have few seats left over for students who did not attend their lower-grade schools.
The district’s traditional, or “comprehensive,” high schools are viewed by many families as schools of last resort. On nearly every academic measure — attendance rates, test scores, college enrollment and completion — the traditional schools lag far behind the magnets.
In a sense, this disparity is built into the system. Magnet schools are designed to enroll academically and artistically accomplished students. Traditional schools take the rest, including almost all students who are still learning English and the majority of those with disabilities.
Other cities have begun to rethink this practice of tracking students into separate schools according to ability — at least as measured by a single test. In New York City, where a debate has raged over admissions to the district’s coveted “specialized” high schools, the mayor has proposed scrapping the schools’ entrance exam. Instead, he said, they should reserve spots for the top students from every middle school.
Some Newark parents have floated a similar plan for the city’s most exclusive magnet school, Science Park High School. Instead, Superintendent León is pursuing the opposite approach — adding new entrance exams for all magnet schools. In other cities, exam schools tend to be highly segregated by race and class, favoring families with the wherewithal to help students prepare for the exams or pay for test prep.
León said he expects the new magnet exams will measure students’ reading and math proficiency, as well as their interest in each school’s particular focus, such as science or technology.
“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” said León, who graduated from Science High School. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”
Karen Gaylord, Science Park High School’s community engagement specialist, said some teachers and parents may grumble about the new test because they haven’t had a chance to prepare students for it. But she noted that families had become “resigned” to entrance exams when magnet schools used them in the past.
She also said many people would welcome the admissions interviews as a way for students to highlight skills and interests that aren’t reflected on their transcripts. The question, she said, is how schools will carry out these changes on such a tight timeline.
“It feels like there are so many opportunities to get this right,” she said. “I’m just not sure we’re going to get them all in this year. The clock is ticking.”